SB 397 would streamline the process and make expungement more accessible
SALEM, Ore.—Less than six percent of people with criminal records in Oregon who are eligible for relief have received it, according to a new report released today by the Paper Prisons Initiative (@paperprisons), a research team from Santa Clara University. The report found that making up the “second chance expungement gap” at the current pace would take 77 years in Oregon.
Expungement is a legal process where eligible individuals can seek to set aside their criminal record, helping them rebuild their lives and reduce the discrimination they could face while pursuing employment and housing opportunities.
Access to expungement can change the trajectory of a life. As it stands, the current expungement process is overly complicated and expensive. To begin the process a petitioner will need to pay the $281 filing fee for each conviction they seek to have set aside plus $81 for fingerprinting, in addition to the cost of an attorney. The process itself is also time and labor-intensive, taking upwards of four months to complete, if ever completed.
“It's not a user-friendly process— it's extremely lengthy,” said De’Andre Frison, an Oregon resident who is Black and has experienced the complicated expungement process first-hand. “It disproportionately affects minorities and African Americans. If you don't have guidance or funding to get an attorney, you're going to get lost.”
The Paper Prisons research team found that an estimated 60 percent of Black Oregonians have a conviction, compared with just 17 percent of white Oregonians— a disturbing revelation that highlights Oregon’s long history of racial targeting and discrimination in the criminal justice system. Among Black Oregonians who have a conviction, 41 percent are eligible for relief, making expungement an urgent racial justice issue.
Frison said expungement allowed him to rebuild his life and provide for his children.
“Having the opportunity to get my record expunged opened so many doors for me to apply for jobs that I couldn't have gotten prior. For me that's huge. Being able to make more money allows me to provide a better life for my kids. It’s not something that just changes one person's life. It can potentially impact generations to come.”
Having a criminal record touches nearly every part of a person’s life, leaving them open to legalized discrimination in housing, education and employment. According to the Paper Prisons report, up to a third of Oregonians have a criminal record, and 42 percent of those people are estimated to be eligible for expungement, making this a critical civil liberties issue in Oregon.
“People don’t know where to start, who to talk to, how to pay for the costs associated with expungement, when to start the process and why so long after returning to the community they don’t have the right to a fresh start,” said Babak Zolfaghari-Azar, Family Care Manager with the Community Healing Initiative Program (CHI), a program in Multnomah County that serves justice involved African American youth and families. “The data reveals that a small fraction of people ever start and finish the process, revealing more about the system and process than the person themselves.”
Senate Bill 397 aims to streamline this process and lower the barriers to expungement for eligible individuals by expediting the process and eliminating filing fees, among other fixes.
“Our communities are calling for urgent action to transform our expungement process to address a huge oversight of justice within the criminal justice system,” said Andrea Valderrama, policy director at the ACLU of Oregon. “It is time to work toward a vision of equitable second chances that is built on accountability, compassion, and opportunity.”
The urgent need for systemic change has been clear for a long time for those who provide re-entry services.
“We cannot undo decades of racial oppression, but we can and must take meaningful steps to reform a system that we know is a cornerstone of structural racism in our state,” said Laura Johnson, director of program development at Sponsors, Inc, an organization based in Lane County providing a broad range of social services to people with conviction histories. “Reducing barriers to employment and housing helps build strong communities, bolsters the economy, creates neighborhoods where children can thrive and opportunity shines greater than despair.”
Senator Kayse Jama (D-Portland), who co-founded Unite Oregon to help uplift struggling Oregonians, supports SB 397.
“It’s time to seriously invest in addressing the underlying systemic issues that hurt our community,” Sen. Jama said. “Ensuring that all eligible individuals can access expungement, especially those from marginalized backgrounds who are currently shut out of the process, is a fundamental step in our journey toward a just and equitable Oregon.”
The complete report is online at: https://paperprisons.org/states/OR.html.